Monday, October 3, 2011

Drive (2011): An Action Movie for Film Buffs by Nicolas Winding Refn

Drive is an interesting effort. The trailer may lead you to believe that it is just another action thriller movie with car chases and whatnot. And this might very well have been the purpose of the filmmakers. After all, box office depends on viewers, and the mainstream audience are not exactly sophisticated in their cinema tastes. But Drive is actually nothing like that.

Drive is the latest film of director Nicolas Winding Refn of Bronson and Valhalla Rising fame. And it is easily his best. Nicolas Winding Refn may be Danish, but he has nothing in common with the famous Danish directors of Dogme 95. While Dogme 95 goes for immediacy and spontaneity, Nicolas Winding Refn is deliberate. While Dogme 95 shuns artistic lighting, Drive is exquisite in its play with tones. While Dogme 95 forbids non-diegetic music, Nicolas Winding Refn thrives on showy but precise music selection. His style really is the opposite of Dogme 95 in pretty much each and every possible way imaginable.

Drive won the award for Best Direction in Cannes earlier this year and the reasons for that are immediately apparent. It manages to be both versatile and consistent at the same time. Drive is generally a slow movie, but it feels tight. It mixes old-school (think 70's) suspense direction with flashy camera moves. Drive really follows a less-is-more motto in a lot of ways. Dialogue is limited, there are no unnecessary exposition and overexplanations. The film flows from silent and moody into short bursts of utterly over the top and self-aware graphic violence. Everything feels well crafted and meshes well. Characters, light, camera are all slightly stylized and carefully thought out. But the stylish visuals never go in the way and only take the spotlight in a few spectacular peak moments.

Despite being a slow movie, Drive doesn't waste time to dive into the good stuff. The opening sequence is perfectly executed and is one of the best in the film. It sets the tone perfectly. I can't remember when was the last time I've seen a meaningful and suspenseful car chase sequence in a modern movie. Car chase scenes tend to be all flashes, no brains these days. Not with Drive. Instead, it goes for realism in the vein of Bill Hickman's work in Bullitt, The French Connection and The Seven-Ups.

The story is probably Drive's weakest link but the movie doesn't really seem to care much about that. It is just a modern take on Shane but stays consistent with the overall versatile nature of the film and mixes in strokes of noir, heist and romance. Ryan Gosling does well in the main part. He is occasionally mesmerizing, especially during the more psychotic bursts of his character. These dark undertones add some interesting color to this new reimagining of the classical No-name Hero. Albert Brooks is the most impressive amongst the supporting cast in the role of a talkative mob boss with a thing for cold steel.

Drive is a welcome break in the stream of formulaic Hollywood action movies. It may appear to favor style over substance and to push existentialism ahead of emotional depth, which may or may not be your thing. But it is undeniably one of the best films this year so far, and that's something in a genre as stale as this.


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